The Day After: Panthers enter time for "reflection"

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CHARLOTTE — Usually, Mondays are a chance to take a final look back at the previous game before quickly turning the page to the next one.

But with the Panthers heading into their bye week, coming off a 33-10 loss to the Dolphins, there's also the opportunity — and the expectation — to look back at how they ended up at this point. Specifically, how a team with playoff hopes recently is now 5-7 headed into a difficult stretch of games in the final month of the season, with long-term questions about issues including their quarterback and how you accurately assess where he is and how he fits.

"I think this is a week of true quality control and reflection," head coach Matt Rhule said Monday morning. "I asked the players to do the same thing while they're away."

What Rhule wasn't doing Monday was making any global declarations. While he said, "I wouldn't take anything off the table" in terms of what might happen after the team reconvenes next week, he said he didn't anticipate making any significant lineup changes or staff changes.

But after Sunday's game, it's difficult for those watching to know exactly where to begin.

A blocked punt for a touchdown and a pair of early interceptions by Cam Newton allowed the game to get out of hand early, and Newton was pulled in the fourth quarter for backup P.J. Walker. That's a hard step to take, but it was justified by many factors beyond Newton.

"I don't think anything was good enough yesterday by anybody," Rhule said. "I can't even begin to get into the whys. I know we can't have three interceptions and five sacks and think that we're going to win.

"But there's a lot of things that can be better. Starting number one with us as coaches putting them in position to play."

There were some dropped balls, and pass protection was once again an issue, with the five sacks coming after they had allowed just two in their previous four games. But Newton was not sharp at all, completing just 5-of-21 passes for 92 yards along with the two picks — for a career-low 5.8 passer rating. Rhule also mentioned the need to be faster getting in and out of the huddle with calls, the kind of thing you almost have to expect when you bring a quarterback into the building nine weeks into the season.

It's a complicated problem, with no one easy solution.

"I think we look at each person, each player, each coach, each decision unto itself," Rhule said. "How do you play in relation to what's in front of you? Do you throw the ball on time, are we in the right checks, is the progression correct? You have to look at all that as best you can.

"We had played well protection-wise in previous games. And really, if we're being honest, there's a formula that people follow to try to beat us. The positive thing is when there's a formula to beat you, that means that people can't just do whatever they want to beat you. They have to do a couple certain things. And really, it's stop the run and get after the passer for us."

The Dolphins did those things, continuing to blitz the Panthers, and taking advantage of a mismatched offensive line in ways other teams hadn't in recent weeks. Rhule mentioned Dennis Daley "struggled a little bit at left tackle," and when left guard Michael Jordan left the game with a hamstring injury, he was replaced by rookie Brady Christensen. It's not an ideal situation, but it won't be ideal until they add more offensive linemen in the offseason.

"That's how people get after us," Rhule said. "What we need is the quarterbacks to make plays and play us through it. The quarterback is only as good as the people around him, but he does have to make those people better. So we'll evaluate everything each week. We're not at the end of the season; we're not making some global statement for the future.

"We went out to Miami, and we got beat up. We got beat. So we regroup this week, we come back next week and play Atlanta at home, and we'll focus on that week and make sure the o-line plays better, and the quarterback have a good plan; make sure there's people open for them to throw to. That's a big piece of this as well, and try to have the best plan possible."

Balancing the plan for the present and the future is also a part of what's happening here.

The Panthers deactivated second-round receiver Terrace Marshall Jr. Sunday, making him a healthy scratch. Rhule said Monday that was done partly to take advantage of a matchup (Shi Smith's deep speed against Miami's man coverage), and partly to bring up practice squad receiver Matt Cole to help on special teams. Rhule said he expected Marshall would be back up soon.

They also sent a message to 2020 first-rounder Derrick Brown, benching the defensive tackle after a rough game against Washington. Rhule said he had a couple of meetings with Brown individually, before and after the game, and hopes the larger message was received.

"Derrick didn't play very well the week before. I made the decision to not start him," Rhule said. "I wanted to see, hoping he'd respond. Looking at tape, it looks like Derrick played a really good game. He's a young player that just needs consistency to his game. Sometimes when you're a young player, and you're drafted high, you put a lot of pressure on yourself to get more sacks, and have more production, and you get away from the fundamentals. And when you realize I'm going to have production if I stick to my fundamentals, and get in a great stance and play my techniques. I think you saw a guy in Derrick yesterday that did that. I'm very excited about Derrick Brown and his future. . . .

"I met with him one-on-one last Wednesday at like 7 a.m., met with him after the game. I think after the game, as disappointed as we were, I think there was some growth from him and his perspective in terms of understanding, 'If I just do these things, I'll be successful.' You go through this adversity and these ups and downs, and some guys stray from the process of being technique-driven. I think Derrick was starting to stray from it, and this week based on the tape, it looked like he got back to it and did an excellent job in there."

It was hard to see many positives after a game like Sunday's, but Rhule's focus on the immediate and fixing problems by taking care of the underlying details is the approach he knows.

So this week, he's going to take a long look at his team, and how they do their business, and figure out what the next steps are.

View photos from Miami as the Panthers take on the Dolphins in Week 12.

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